Pineapples in Pompeii

PINEAPPLES IN POMPEII Christopher Columbus found the New World in 1492. James Cook was the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle in 1773. Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world in 1519-22 although he died along the way so it doesn’t really count. We hang our history on firsts without acknowledging that they are only the first that we know of and we make it all neat and tidy. As skulls of hominids are discovered that push our likely lineage millions of years further back in time, we need to apply the same flexibility to modern history.

Many discoveries should set our minds wandering. A large cache of Chinese bronze coins and a bronze mirror dating from 1200 BC have been found in Victoria BC. A Chinese stele (inscribed stone marker) has been reported at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Along the northwest coast, many other hoards of Chinese coins and artefacts have been found. When the first white settlers arrived in the Columbia River area, they saw that the Wishram Indians had thousands of old Chinese coins that they had received from Chinese sea traders. Chinese stone anchors of pre-Columbian origin have been discovered along the west coast down to California. Peanuts, a New World crop, have been found in Pre-Columbian sites in Zhejian (Chekiang) province in China dating from 2100 and 1811 BC.

With the ability to send photos and information worldwide in an instant these days, the number of discoveries and connections is multiplying exponentially. An Egyptian bronze disc with three pyramids and a sphinx on it was found in a cave in Cozumel in the 1950s. Egyptian hieroglyphs are carved on rocks in Australia. Japanese figurines from 500 AD were found by a peasant near Merida in the Yucatan. Frescoes in Mayan ruins depict Greek or Roman galleys. Roman amphorae are found in the Bay of Guanabara, Brazil, Greco-Roman terracotta oil lamps in pre-Inca tombs in Peru as well as Roman jewellery in six graves near Mexico City. In Pompeii, fruit that resembles pineapples and squash, both from the Americas, has been depicted in a mosaic and murals painted before AD 79. Why are Olmec heads in Venezuela so African? On Easter Island, bedrock stone is carved in the shape of a Chinese foo dog, its mouth open to catch rainwater. We don’t just read about them but see photos and can even make comments.

In his book 1421, Gavin Menzies started an explosion of interest in the Chinese diplomatic mission of the treasure ship fleet led by Zheng He (Cheng Ho) between 1405 and 1434. Menzies is well able to understand the problems of a mariner, having been a Royal Navy submarine commanding officer. His expertise together with discoveries reported to him by people around the world resulted in the second book, 1434, which describes the Chinese visiting the Mediterranean and contributing the knowledge that began the Renaissance. Leonardo’s “inventions” were modifications of Chinese ideas. Menzies’s personal journey began when studying a map dated 1424 that showed islands in the Atlantic called Antillia (Antilles), noted on many ancient maps, which might be Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe. Others, such as Paul Chiasson, author of The Island of Seven Cities, claim it is Cape Breton. Anyway, it’s there on the maps that were drawn before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So Columbus and Pinzon had not discovered America and neither had Cabral discovered Brazil. They arrived with maps in their hands.

In his book, In Quest of the Great White Gods, Robert F. Marx, archaeologist and diver, followed up many of the discoveries mentioned above and even went to the trouble of recreating Columbus’s Niña and replicating the voyage with 15th century equipment and conditions in an attempt to understand early voyages. He also built Viking ships to prove their seaworthiness and endured the unbearably harsh conditions of sailing to North America, which had occurred about 1,000 years ago and in a warmer climate. Finding Phoenician shipwrecks was a constant goal to provide the reverse engineering he needed to build a Phoenician ship and prove that they too could have crossed the Atlantic. Discoveries of a bronze axe head, amphorae, Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts in South America seem to prove the case. A Phoenician inscription on a stone reused in a church in the Yucatan provides another puzzle. The Mi’kmaq of the Maritimes have stories about white visitors and writing that echoes Chinese characters. The finds, however well documented, indicate that history is a much more complicated story than we imagine. When the inhabitants of South America have Asian DNA and Asian chickens with blue eggs well before Columbus arrived, we need to wonder.